Culture 101: Build a Great Classical Music Library for $20 (or Less)

Our first taste of super cheap, super classical music recordings was an 89 cent uncredited MP3 album of violin concertos. It was about an hour's worth of music, all smashed onto one track with no title or performer information at all.

During a recent visit to Amazon, we noticed the most expensive CD set of music by Mozart on Amazon was The Mozart Collection by Karl Bohm. It listed at just about $190. That's 20 CDs (or the MP3 equivalent) totaling some 23-plus hours of music, putting it at about $8 per hour of tunes. Not a bad buy if you've got that kind of money and happen to really love Mozart.

Mozart was a great composer and the Bohm collection includes some fabulous, landmark recordings of his music, but we're not willing to part with $190. Actually $19 is closer to our weekly music budget. Thanks to some "big box" mp3 sets of classical music, we can get some 84 hours of music by slightly less well-known performers for less than $20. We'll use Mozart albums as examples here, but each of the series we mention include at least eight composers, with most including a dozen or more.

What to look for: Several labels specialize in budget priced releases of classical music. There's the Bach Guild. It has a nice series of MP3 albums grouped according to composer or, in some cases, type of composition. There's also a 111 Amazing series released by X5 Music Group, and the 99 Must Have series by Cobra Entertainment. Most prices range from 99 cents to $5.99 for an album that contains anywhere from 30 to 300 tracks.

What to watch out for: You can easily buy duplicate sets of music. The 40 songs on one album might be included as part of the 99 songs on another release. Of course at $1 or $2 an album mistakenly buying duplicates won't be as costly as if you were buying $20 CDs, still if you pay a little attention that's easily avoided.

In an effort to avoid duplication, we bought series according to composers first. Later we bought a few releases that were focused on music on a particular instrument, such as piano or violin. We stayed away from the "Music to Read To" or "Best Music for Winter" sorts of collections.

Read the customer reviews. We look for notes about any audio problems rather than comments about performances. Also it's not unusual for fans research and post the complete title, composer, conductor and orchestra information for albums which is often missing or incomplete on budget buys.

The Bach Guild releases are always the first stop for us. This Big Mozart Box album from the Bach Guild sells for $2.99 (Reader reviews mention various prices, including free and 99 cents for these sets. Those reflect sales and promotional pricing.) It has 131 tracks, totaling almost 14 hours of music. The good thing about this series is most of the works are complete and presented in order. (Other releases shuffle the order of pieces, so you listen to the end of one sonata, then the overture from an opera and then the third movement of a piano concerto. Some listeners don't mind the shuffled order; we do.)

This set include works written for strings, piano, horn, oboe and orchestras. There's the Flute Quartet No. 1 by Paula Robison and the Tokyo String Quartet. Pianists Alfred Brendel and Denis Matthews, both well-known and accomplished, contributed tracks.

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One of the more obvious indications of a budget series is the often less-than-brilliant cover art. You'll see similar images on several releases. We don't mind that particularly, but when we see a pretty cover we tend to notice. The Red Classic series, released by Cobra Entertainment lists for 99 cents. It has 30 tracks and totals three hours. The works on here are out of order, bumping it down on our favorites list. Even though it's just 30 works, there's a nice variety of pieces including work written for violin, flute, two pianos, orchestra and more. Standout pieces include Fantasy in D Minor, K397 performed by Jeno Jando and the London Symphony performing the Magic Flute overture.

The 99 Must Have series by Cobra Entertainment lists for $2.19. It has 99 tracks totaling more than nine hours. This release lists performers but works are not presented in order nor is every movement of every work included. Standout tracks include Jeno Jando's Sonata Facile, K545, and a repeat of the Fantasy in D Minor, K397 that we saw in a previous release. There are also performances by the London Symphony Orchestra and the Vienna Mozart Ensemble.

The Rise of the Masters series by X5 Music Group has some of the better cover artwork (well, maybe not better, but at least they put some effort into it). This release lists for $2.19. It includes 100 tracks and totals more than 11 hours of music. The works here are in order, with all the movements included and performers are listed. You might not some of the performers - we didn't recognize the names of the Drottningholm Baroque Ensemble or the Tapiola Sinfonietta and Jean-Jacques Kantorow, but the performances are professional and well done for the most part. (There are nine composers in the Rise of the Masters series. Each sells for around $2. Buy the whole series and you'll get 1,800 tracks for around $20.)

The 40 Must Have String Masterpieces, released by Cobra Entertainment, sells for $1.09. It has 40 tracks and totals four hours. The Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra performs several works. This series includes all of the movements of the included works, in order and with performer names listed.

This collection of five MP3 albums, totaling 42 hours and 400 tracks, costs $9.45. Pick up the same five for Chopin, for example, and you'd be getting some 84 hours/800 tracks of classical music for less than $19. Nothing against Karl Bohm and the 20 CD set we mentioned earlier, but that sounds much more attractive than a $190 price tag.

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